U.S.-China Institute at Bryant University

China Blog

Day 4 - Suzhou

Curious how quickly your luck can change.  On Day 4 Yichu Yin and his son Dunwei Yin took me to Suzhou as their guest.   What good fortune!

Yin Yichu and Yin Dunwei  at the “Lingering Garden” in Suzhou.  Suzhou’s  “Lingering Garden” is considered one of the “Four Most Famous Gardens” in China.  The “Humble Administrator’s Garden” in Suzhou is another of the Four, along with the traditional garden at the Summer Palace and the “Mountain Summer Resort” in Chengdu

To back up just a bit for context, I’ll need to remind you that before this trip I spent time asking Bryant faculty and staff who were born in China about what special things a visitor to China might look for?  In part this was prompted by the idea of possibly visiting the Shanghai Expo.  More significantly, it was prompted by the visit to the Opium War Museum in 2006 and by some recent readings, particularly Richard Todd’s The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity .  Todd’s essay probes a series of ways in which we define our “real experiences.”  An artwork sells for huge sums until it’s unmasked as a forgery.  We want our travel to take us “off the beaten track,” but when we get there do we find ourselves actually privileging an artful recreation?  Overall, Richard Todd questions the relationship between how we see “value” and “authenticity.”  How do we experience objects, places, events, and our personal lives?  What’s valuable? 

What makes things “genuine” or “authentic” in our experiences of art, music, antiques, cultural events, historical recreations, or travel?  

Todd’s questions about how we find the “authentic” helped me frame the questions I asked colleagues . I tried to capture this idea of the “authentic” experience by always asking, “What would Chinese people most want a non-Chinese visitor to see?”  Of course, that question produced a wide variety of truly intriguing opinions and answers.

One of my more engaging discussions was with Ting-ru Huang, who is an instructor in our Chinese Language program.  Huang Laoshi grew up in Shanghai and spent a number of years working in the Chinese film industry before coming to the US to study in the 1990s.  We happened to meet in a hallway one day at Bryant, and she offered invaluable advice.  When Ting told me about growing up in Shanghai and that her work in film was actually based in Xi’an, I was stunned.  These are two of the four cities on my itinerary.  Moreover, applying Richard Todd’s ideas about questioning “authenticity,” they represent the kind of extremes that visitors so often seem to find in China – the Shanghai Expo versus the Qin Emperor, the Tang Dynasty and the Silk Road -- The Global City of the 21 st century versus the traditional multicultural realities of historical China.

Chance certainly can play an important role in our lives.  Ting-ru proved an invaluable source for planning this trip.   As I asked her about the Shanghainese memories of “old Shanghai” Ting offered to provide an introduction to her father, Yichu Yin.  Yin Xiansheng is a retired professor of chemistry at Fudan University who is remains very active as a materials science consultant and entrepreneur.  He lived in Shanghai in the years before the Cultural Revolution, and Ting-ru assured me he would have interesting things to share on that score, and on the cultural legacy of “old Shanghai.”  In addition, Ting suggested, he might be able to help me find a VIP pass for the Shanghai Expo.   Too tempting on both counts! 

True to her word, Ting-ru provided an introduction, and Yin Yichu opened our e-mail correspondence with an invitation to visit.  I told Yichu my story and put my questions to him on the topic of what Chinese people want visitors to see.  In order to give focus to our discussion, I also asked him for his advice:  With one free day in Shanghai, which to visit:  the Shanghai Expo or the city of Suzhou?” 

To tell the truth I was dumbfounded (but pleased) when Yichu responded very quickly with crisp advice:  “With your interests, Suzhou.”

What followed was one of those stories out of a “believe it or not” tale.  The reason I had time to do any cultural visits followed from the fact that my last day in Shanghai was the first day of the Mid Autumn festival.  Thus, educational establishments and businesses would be closed, and tourist venues would be swamped.  The holiday also meant no driver available from Yin Xiansheng’s company.  On the other hand, the holiday also meant that Yin Dunwei (Ting’s brother) would not be going to his office.  Moreover, he would be glad to join us in an excursion to Suzhou.

So – 7:00 a.m. on the first day of the autumn festival and Day 4 in my travels, we met in the lobby of my hotel.  We then set off for what became a fourteen-hour excursion to Suzhou and parts of “new” Shanghai.

At this point, it may help to offer some background on Suzhou and some explanation for how the idea of a visit to Suzhou entered this equation at all.

Here I need to offer the motto of all successful inventors, entrepreneurs, and travelers:  Chance favors the prepared mind!

As part of my Opium War museum wandering ruminations, I had decided to look for the counterpoint to the Shanghai Expo.  What would be the polar opposite?  Would it be possible to find a 180 degree opposition cultural vista in the neighborhood of Shanghai?  Is there something totally unlike Shanghai – near Shanghai? 

Tang Sancai (three-color) pottery from a special exhibition at the Suzhou Museum In traditional Chinese gardening, the fretwork patterns in decorative window screens are intended to enhance the view from the window (Lingering Garden, Suzhou)

Of course, the answer is “yes, there is Suzhou.”  Shanghai in new China in the extreme.  It was a fishing village until the Opium wars and the 1842 treaty known in the Western Civ textbooks as the “Treaty of Nanking” and Chinese schoolbooks as the first of the “Unequal Treaties.”  Effectively the Treaty of Nanking opened the way for the Western powers to begin the economic exploitation of China (Western Civ textbook).  For Chinese students, the “Unequal Treaties” opened the “Century of Shame” in Chinese history.  

So, within the Chinese framework, Shanghai has had a troubled and somewhat disreputable past.  On the other hand, Suzhou, “cradle of Wu culture,” ranks as one of the most cherished icons of Chinese pride in the depth of Chinese history and culture.  Suzhou had emerged as a significant regional center of the Wu people by the time of the late Shang (6 th century BCE).  Later, during the Spring and Autumn period, King Helu of the Wu established his capital at the site that has become Suzhou.  When he died (496 BCE) he was buried in the Tiger Hill at Suzhou.   

With the completion of the Grand Canal under the Sui (c. 600 CE) Suzhou gained economic prominence as a regional center.   During the glorious era of the Tang (618 – 907) Suzhou achieved economic prominence as the center of Imperial silk production and as a summer retreat for the elite of the Tang imperial administration.  During the Tang, Suzhou won a reputation for its production of luxury goods and as the site of the most beautiful of all traditional Chinese gardens.  The city has held onto both those reputations despite several serious setbacks during times of warfare and rebellion:  Suzhou’s extremely favorable location on the Grand Canal and its natural scenic beauty have led to strong economic and cultural revival after each massacre, invasion, or shift in dynastic fortunes.

A city of canals, great natural beauty, and a very favorable position in the economic geography of China establish Suzhou’s reputation as the “richest” city in China over 1,000 years ago.  Along with its prosperity, the city has continued to attract scholars and literati.  The gardens, scenic views, and cultural achievements continued right along with the growth in the silk industry and the production of luxury goods such as enamel ware, porcelain, and lacquered wooden ware.

Sections of China’s Grand Canal date to the 5 th century BCE, but the complete linkage between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers was first put into service under the Sui Dynasty (581 – 618). Considerably improved and extended under the later dynasties, the Grand canal eventually reached Beijing with a length just over 1,000 miles.

The itinerary Dunwei Yin, Ting’s brother, had developed for our excursion ran right down the center of Suzhou’s historical and cultural significance.   Culturally, we hit a home run in finding something of a polar extreme to the Shanghai Expo.

As we arrived in the Suzhou area, it seemed we had stumbled on something like the gathering crowd for the Super Bowl, or maybe the largest rock concert on the planet.  Tour buses and cars thronged the outskirts of town.  The entire center of Suzhou had been closed to private vehicles, including tour buses.  Only taxis and city buses were being allowed to enter the center city.  People disgorged from their buses and cars and the train station and surged toward the center city looking for the approved taxis or buses along the way. 

The crowd disgorging from buses and cars outside Suzhou

Yichu pays our bicycle rickshaw driver. Yes, that red basket was our transportation into Suzhou!

While Dunwei looked for a place to park the car (eventually over a mile from the city), Yichu and I began walking in the rain toward the bridge.  Accosted by a bicycle rickshaw cab, we hopped in eagerly and set off for the Suzhou Museum, a true Suzhou landmark. 

I was truly pleased to find the Suzhou Museum at the top of Dunwei’s proposed itinerary.  It was a mob scene.  Literally thousands, mostly young Chinese, had already lined up and were patiently feeding into the museum.

I have a thing about museums – who owns them?  Why were they created?  Who do they expect to visit?  What are we supposed to get out of a visit?

I particularly focus on these kinds of questions when I’ve prepared to take students on the Sophomore International Experience trips to Italy.  I try to get them all to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston so they can see a large metropolitan museum in a large U.S. city as a point of contrast to what they see in Europe.  Museums like the MFA in Boston exist because late 19 th and early 20 th century philanthropists wanted to educate the people of their city by bringing the best of the world to their museum.  Only incidentally, will you find the work of a Boston artist, or a New Englander, in the MFA.  There are some for sure, but they are there because the professional art historians and curators rank them among the “authentic” masters of their genre.  Museums such as the MFA are full of explanatory materials produced by an education department that plays a significant part in the museum’s mission.  The expectation is that you need to bring very little to the museum experience.  The museum exists to educate its visitors about the best (and most “authentic”) of the arts from all the world’s cultural traditions.

Most museums in other parts of the world don’t work that way.  They exist to collect, preserve, and exhibit the authentic “local” heritage.  If that’s the best in the world, so be it.  That’s the case in even the biggest and most prestigious of world museums.  The Capitoline in Rome, for instance, is filled with sculpture and artworks collected largely from within the domain of the city of Rome itself.  Even the non-Roman, non-Italian artists whose works enter the collection have had some connection to Rome or Roman culture.  Usually, they are represented in the Capitoline because they lived and worked in Rome.  

In contrast to the MFA or any other major museum in a major U.S. city, labels are spare in the Capitoline as well as most major museums around the world.  Visitors are expected to already carry some knowledge and understanding of the history and culture represented. 

In this regard, guidebooks often offer complaints such as: “This rather dry museum has no English captions, and concentrates on Suzhou’s association with canal construction and silk production.”   For me, that kind of dismissal of the efforts of the education department for a museum has come to mean the writers of the guidebooks have missed the point:  The museum isn’t really for those who aren’t bringing at least a bit of cultural knowledge to the experience. 

Of course, that particular quote comes from a guidebook that I bought just before this trip as I was musing on “authentic experiences”—the DK Eyewitness Travel – China ( p. 204).  Although the DK guide does recognize that the New Suzhou Museum is in an I.M. Pei structure opened in 2006, they misinform their readers with their the labels.  Most, now at least, do have translations, and most galleries offer excellent gallery panels detailing (in Chinese and English) the significance of the materials within the frameworks of Suzhou’s history and Chinese culture.

I.M. Pei chose the grey and white color scheme, along with the angular surfaces to coordinate the feel of the Suzhou Museum with the tradition architecture of Suzhou.

The hexagonal window offers a reflection of Suzhou’s architectural legacy of coordinating garden views with “framing” elements in the houses and pavilions surrounding a garden.

This gallery recreates the study for a Ming Dynasty man of letters.

I.M. Pei Designed the New Suzhou Museum to surround a traditional Chinese Garden.  The angled, zig-zag  walks allows a consantly change set of views as you stroll through the garden. Goldfish are an essential element of the pools in a traditonal garden.  They are associated with wealth and good fortune.

Nevertheless, the more critical point lies with the fact that the New Suzhou Museum is not attracting throngs of non-Chinese visitors.  We ran across a few Australians and several Americans in well over an hour in the museum, but the number of obvious Western faces was saw all morning was fewer than a dozen.  Of even greater interest, the overwhelming majority of Chinese entering the museum were very young – teens or twenty-somethings.  They were there as young couples and in obvious groups of six or eight friends.  The standard tour groups with their flag-bearing leader and distinctive tees or caps to mark their identity were entirely absent.   What we saw were groups of young people who had picked the Suzhou Museum as their destination of choice to start their morning on holiday.

I.M. Pei was born in Suzhou, and even though he “grew up” in Hong Kong and Shanghai, he spent the summers of his youth staying with extended family in Suzhou.  He has always claimed the traditional gardens of Suzhou were an inspiration for his creativity and a source for his artistic vision. According to the 2006 New York Times article covering the opening of the New Suzhou Museum , this commission allowed him to return to his “Roots.” According to I.M. Pei himself, the commission allowed him to combine the traditions of Suzhou with the strongest trends in modern design and architecture.  He feels that this museum allowed him to give something back to China.

The rocks are the key to the aesthetics in a traditional Chinese garden.  They are all weathered naturally, and most were transported very long distances before they were placed artfully to inspire the imagination and contribute to the sense of serenity and contemplation that is the goal of a garden.  The ponds and pavilions are designed to complement the rocks, which are truly the centerpiece.
This doorway exiting cover walkway in the Lingering Garden could have been an inspiration for I.M. Pei’s hexagonal window at the Suzhou Museum.
The lute music worked perfectly to match the mood of the Lingering Garden

It’s true – The New Suzhou Museum did rhyme with the traditional garden we visited, the “Lingering Garden,” which provided a very impressive glimpse into the aesthetic of Chinese traditional gardens.  Rocks, water, structures, and plants artfully arranged to appear natural while posing an endless series of carefully prepared vistas offering a sense of calm through the contrasts of the yin and the yang—the soft, yielding yin of water opposing the strong, hard yang of the rocks.  Precisely ordered walkways zigzagging across the water allow a new vista every few feet.  Carefully constructed shelters, walls, and openings provide framing for natural landscape pictures that offer a natural feeling of serenity.  These are the environments of the literati and artist.  The restful retreats for creative accomplishment.

The only special request I made as an addition to the itinerary Yichu and Dunwei provided was a visit to the Suzhou Silk Museum – highly recommended by my DK guide as “a pleasure to visit.” (p.204.)  It’s true, it’s a wonderful museum that provides a “living history” experience of the traditional silk industry.  The silk worms munching their mulberry leaves are real.  The opportunity to see the traditional methods of unwinding cocoons and weaving is quite instructive.  The explanations are thorough, and they are translated into the English.

Yichu and Dunwei at the Silk Museum .  No crowds. The silkworms are real -- but the worker isn’t! The Mulberry trees at the Silk Museum.

I wouldn’t call the Silk Museum deserted during our visit, but in comparison to every other site we saw – The New Suzhou Museum, “Lingering Garden,” and “Tiger Hill” – the crowd was very thin.   No lines, no waiting, patient staff.  This was not where the crowds of Chinese youth were gathering.
If the Pagoda atop Tiger Hill behind Yichu looks crooked, that’s because it is out of plumb (2.3 meters out  --  on a height of 147 meters) Lanterns for the Mid Autumn Festival celebrations at Tiger Hill.

On our return to Shanghai, Yichu Yin invited me to his apartment to view some family memorabilia and to share a dinner at a favorite neighborhood restaurant.  I felt genuinely honored.  Yichu Yin has a beautiful home, and his neighborhood represents what many of us would call the “best” of modern Shanghai – cosmopolitan, multicultural, global in its perspective.  Surrounded by the rush and roar of Shanghai, his apartment block offers quiet seclusion, and the walled compound of the pedestrian street nearby provides dining possibilities that range from German and French to Iranian and Chinese.  We enjoyed a wonderful traditional Chinese dinner and talked about the Mid Autumn Moon Festival as the people down the street were preparing to open their annual celebration of the German Oktoberfest.  What a day!

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